Kirstin Chen is the author of Soy Sauce for Beginners, featured in USA Today’s “New Voices”, an O, The Oprah Magazine book to pick up now, and a Glamour book club pick. A former Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing, she holds an MFA from Emerson College and a BA from Stanford University. Born and raised in Singapore, she currently lives in San Francisco, where she’s at work on her second novel. We sit down with the new author to discuss her first book, her journey into writing, films, and more! Read below for the full interview…
Did you feel any initial pressure or anxiety releasing Soy Sauce for Beginners, since this is your debut offering?
Kirstin: I feel pressure and anxiety on a daily basis. I suspect all writers do to some extent. I worry about reviews; I worry about upcoming events and interviews; I worry about finding time to work on my next book. But I think my anxiety has decreased over the last month or two. I’ve gotten better at limiting the amount of time and energy I spend obsessing about things that are out of my control (which includes just about every part of the marketing and publicity process). I practice yoga daily. That helps.
The plot revolves around the family soy sauce company and Gretchen’s need to figure out exactly what she wants, where she’s going, and who she is. How much of yourself is/was in Gretchen?
Kirstin: I’m often asked this question, I think, because on the surface, Gretchen and I share so many characteristics: We were both born and raised in Singapore. We both moved to the US for school. We both settled down in San Francisco. We’re around the same age.
I took these details from my own life and gave them to Gretchen not because I wanted to write a veiled memoir, but because these details enabled me to explore the aspects of Gretchen’s personality that I don’t share. In other words, I used these autobiographical details to serve the story. Here’s an example: Gretchen attended Stanford University as I did. I gave her this educational background because I wanted to create a character who was both academically successful (as I was) yet shiftless and somewhat unambitious with regards to her career and personal goals (as I am not). Our shared educational background gave me a way to imagine and understand Gretchen’s lack of ambition.
I’ve interviewed quite a few people who have lived in both Eastern and Western parts of the world and they all express the various pros and cons of these experiences living a duality of cultures. Is this something that is particularly hard on the character of Gretchen as she has spent a large part of her life in the U.S.?
Kirstin: Yes, I definitely think Gretchen lives between two cultures. Because Gretchen’s mother has such a deep affection for the U.S., she raised Gretchen to believe that all things American were superior to their Singaporean counterparts. She taught Gretchen to speak with an American accent, she gave her a very un-Singaporean name, she sent her to boarding school in the U.S. As such, even as a young child, Gretchen never felt fully at home in Singapore. The same uneasiness persists when she returns to Singapore as an adult.
And reflecting the same question onto you. You grew up in Singapore but want to remain in the States. Why do you feel that way?
Kirstin: I love living in San Francisco. My husband and I have really embraced it as home. But I don’t think I’ve ruled out returning to Singapore. I go back once a year to visit my family. In fact, I recently had my very first book event there, and it was such a pleasure to be able to celebrate the release of my novel with the people I’ve known all my life. So, I do seriously consider moving back from time to time, not only to be closer to my family, but also because of the ever-growing number of generous fellowships and residencies for Singaporean writers.
Soy Sauce for Beginners was released digitally first and then released on hard copy form in early 2014. Is this a unique approach for book releases to capitalize on early buzz or was there a specific psychology behind this method?
Kirstin: You’ll have to ask my publisher (Amazon Publishing / New Harvest) about the specifics, but yes, I believe the plan was in place to enable my book to reach a wider audience, and it seems to have worked. Far more readers than I could have ever fathomed downloaded the Kindle version of Soy Sauce for Beginners during the month leading up to my official launch.
How did you feel about The Great Gatsby’s film adaptation? If you are ever in the position where a studio would want to pick up the rights to your work, would you be hesitant with how they would handle it?
Kirstin: I actually just watched, or tried to watch, The Great Gatsby on the plane on my way back to Singapore. I couldn’t get through it. It was strangely boring despite the opulent, over-the-top costumes, music and set. So yes, I would definitely worry about how a studio would handle the adaptation of my book—if you read my answer to the first question, you’ll see that I tend to worry about most things—but I would never turn down the opportunity!
The best part of this particular book for me was he descriptions of Singapore culture. Your next book explores the landscapes of Southern China (HK). Will more and more books feature an Asian setting?
Kirstin: Thank you for saying that; it’s one of the things I worked hardest on. My next novel is set partly in Gulangyu, a tiny island off the coast of Xiamen in southern China, and partly in Hong Kong, in 1958. Needless to say, it’s quite different from my first book. Back to your question, however, I wish I were the kind of writer who brimmed with ideas for future books, but I find it very difficult to think beyond the current one. I’ve never even been able to work on multiple projects at the same time. In all honesty, I have no idea what I’ll write about next or where the story will be set.
What are some of your favorite Asian films?
You are having launch parties all over the world. What advice do you have for authors who may be a bit aren’t afraid to get out there and promote their book once it is published?
Kirstin: I had a launch party in Singapore, but most of my other events will take place in the US, so I’m not sure if that counts as “all over the world.” (But I’ll take it!) I think many writers, myself included, shy away from social situations. I’m not a total recluse, but I don’t thrive in the spotlight and I definitely need my alone time. That being said, I’ve learned to push myself to say yes to publicity opportunities that come my way because almost every opportunity I’ve accepted has led to something else, and you never know which opportunity will lead you to the one you thought was out of reach. So, as much as possible, say yes.
I know this is looking slightly ahead, but do you have any plans to revisit the character of Gretchen in a sequel?
Kirstin: I have no plans for a sequel, but you’re not the first person to ask this question. Many readers have commented on my book’s open-ended conclusion—something that surprised me initially. Before I embarked on this novel, I wrote short stories. I love reading short stories and I wonder if my affection for the form has made me more comfortable with ambiguous endings than the average reader?
Want to stay up to date on all of Kirstin’s work and latest news? Follow her cookie crumb trail below: